The Atlanta-based United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld the criminal conviction of Alexander Roy who claimed that his attorney showing up seven minutes late to trial violated his constitutional right to counsel.
Roy's trial was held in Florida in 2012. The middle school teacher was indicted on several criminal charges and faced a sentence of life in prison if convicted. On the third day of trial, Judge K. Michael Moore recessed for a one-hour lunch break beginning at 1:30 PM. When the trial reconvened, Roy's attorney Jay Kirschner had not yet returned from the lunch break. The trial continued anyway, and Kirschner arrived seven minutes later. While Kirschner was away, a computer forensics expert testified about crucial evidence in support of the prosecution. Roy ended up being convicted of all counts and was given a life sentence.
While the entire appeals court agreed that the absence violated Roy's constitutional right to counsel, they upheld his conviction in an 8-3 opinion. The en banc decision was hotly debated and at a staggering 281 pages was one of the lengthiest decisions the 11th Circuit has issued in years.
Chief Judge Ed Carnes wrote for the majority. The decision’s opening lines sharply set the tone for the majority opinion:
Because it is a document designed to govern imperfect people, the Constitution does not demand perfect trials and errors do not necessarily require the reversal of a conviction. More than thirty years ago, the Supreme Court reminded us: “As we have stressed on more than one occasion, the Constitution entitles a criminal defendant to a fair trial, not a perfect one.”
In his dissent, Judge Charles Wilson wrote:
If allowing a criminal defendant to “stand alone”—in this defendant’s case, truly, entirely alone—against the government while the prosecution elicits incriminating testimony does not constitute a structural defect in the proceedings, it is difficult to envision what would.